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Hethersett Old Hall

The Old Hall was built on the south side of the turnpike and has been developed over most of the last four hundred years to meet the domestic and agricultural needs of owners with wealth and status. Its role changed in 1938 when acquired for use as a private school for girls. Since then progressive development has taken place to meet changed demands. The large barn was converted to an assembly hall, and stables, haylofts and farmsheds have, where possible, been remodelled for educational use.

Although no visible signs can date the building before 1600 the layout suggests an earlier house, possibly E or H shaped, could have been present. The principal facade facing north west is Georgian, c. l774, being of red brick in Flemish bond with a hipped roof. There are five bays of two storeys, with the first and fifth canted. Windows have recessed sashes and the central doorway is in classical style and has a semi-circular flat roofed portico supported by four Ionic columns. A wing was added late in the nineteenth century to the south-west side extending out at the rear with the ground floor of brick and upper floor in mock Tudor. Further additions forming a service range on the north-east side date from 1902.

The barn, now the assembly hall with a cottage in the first bay, has a datestone in the south-west gable, 1754. It is brick built in Flemish bond, roofed with pantiles and has five bays articulated inside and out by brick pilasters. Gables have brick tumbling in with parapet copings, owl holes and infilled slits. At the rear a pantiled outshut extends from bays two to five. Timbers inside show a three tiered staggered purlin roof, with collars and tie beams braced from wall posts.

An architectural description of Hethersett Old Hall in 1984, from the Norfolk Landscape Archaeological Unit, suggests that, although no part of the exterior can be said to date before the end of the sixteenth century, the plan of the building suggests that it has an older core, which is now obscured by numerous alterations. Some fragments of late sixteenth century beams were reused in the barn. The date of 1754, could tally with the infilling of the courtyard, and that of 1770 on the stables might also apply to the present north-west facade. The mock Tudor additions are late nineteenth century, probably before the north-east wing of 1902/3, and the central bay window is also a nineteenth-century addition.

Thomas Starling Norgate was an owner of the Hall in the early nineteenth century and an influential figure of the period. He was responsible for the foundation of the Norfolk and Norwich Horticultural Society in 1829 and the East Anglian Newspaper and is listed in the Dictionary of National Biography. He began to write his Memoirs on 1 January 1812 for the benefit of his children. There were twelve of them and the eldest, Elias, is listed in the book as having been vaccinated against smallpox.

Norgate's paternal grandmother kept a school for little children in Norwich and he considered that this indicated that when her first husband died, she was left a widow in humble circumstances. She was lame and he remembered "seeing the little urchins take advantage of the old matron's infirmity and get beyond that dread instrument of her short-lived anger, the birch". She was looked after "during her senility" by his father and died in January 1795 aged 83. Norgate was born on 20 August 1772. His father was then living in the house in White Lion Lane, Norwich, where he had served an apprenticeship with a Mr Ellis, a surgeon and apothecary. The boy was sent to Norwich Free School, and in the book there is an extensive comment on his schooldays and of the following period at New College, Hackney. This college was set up as a seminary for dissenters as, at that time, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge required pupils to subscribe to the Articles of Faith of the Church of England. Norgate's father had left the established church to become a Unitarian. It was the period when "Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man was running like wildfire from one end of the kingdom to the other".

Norgate abandoned his destination to the Bar. "My indolence and taste for quiet retirement were flattered with the hope of indulgence at no distant period by the extreme old age of my Grandmother Starling, at whose decease I knew I should be entitled to landed property of between three and four hundred a year".

Elias Norgate, his father, was mortified when his son made the decision not to continue with his training. The young man had found "the keeping of Terms at Lincoln's Inn the grossest humbug imaginable" and became a writer for a review, at two guineas a sheet. Grandmother Starling died in January 1795 and T.S.Norgate took possession of the estate immediately. His sister lived with him and kept house.

Norgate ultimately set his affections on a young lady, Mary Susan Randall. As children they were "at the same dancing school and liked each other in those early days ... On my settlement in Hethersett however, chance threw us together again". They were married on 4 August 1797 in St Luke's Chapel of Norwich Cathedral. She was 23 years old. Norgate had a high regard of the opposite sex and included a poem, Woman, praising their virtues.

He left Hethersett after nearly fifteen years to open a Fire Insurance Office in Norwich and was appointed actuary with a small percentage, and it must have been then that he commenced the Memoirs. Extracts indicate the pleasure he derived from rural life, but also his attitude to the elite of parochial society:

My farm in that village is situated for almost a mile in length by Ketteringham Wood which is alive with birds of every description - which included nightingales.

Time certainly never hung heavily on my hands at Hethersett: having been accustomed for some years since I left it, however, to a much more diversified & stimulant society than any Village can afford, I fear that my return to rustication now would be attended by languor and ennui, if not perhaps with disgust.

The livelier conversation of the table of cultivated society give play to fancy, rapidity to conception, brilliancy to wit. But how must the intellects rusticate with the manners, if a Parish Meeting, where the Overseers of the Village, the Schoolmaster and once or twice a year, the Parson, assembled with becoming gravity to pore over Parochial matters, constitute the only Society which can be found beyond the walls of one's own house!

In 1809 he had invested 2000 of his own and 3000 of his sister's money in the corn trade, only to suffer the loss of over half the capital after five years. He resolved to emigrate in 1815 and went off to Calais but was forced back to England by the wars in France and Holland. He reflected, in 1821, on his earlier writings, "I returned to Hethersett in 1816 and certainly have experienced no ennui at the seclusion. Having assumed my old and favourite occupation of reviewing for the Monthly Review edited by Griffiths, my time is employed very agreeably, though not profitably in a pecuniary sense. Farming is a ruinous concern, but it is dull and tedious to be constantly harping on the same subject of complaint. Here I am, and here I hope, rather than expect to be able, to continue:"

As hare, whom hounds and horn pursue, Pants to the place from whence at first she flew, I still have my hopes, my long vexations past, Here to remain - and die at home at last!

His son, Elias, died in 1833, unmarried, at the age of 35 and left in his will "a freehold estate in Hethersett - a capital dwelling-house, outbuildings, appurtenances and 45 acres more or less of arable and pasture now in his occupation" to his father and brothers and sisters. It also stated "I further charge my executors to allow any anatomical dissection or examination of my body for the purpose of the furtherance of surgical science which it may be deemed fit and expedient..."

T.S.Norgate was listed in the 1841 census as being 61 years of age and of independent means. An idea of his household can be gained by the fact that four live-in servants are listed to look after a family of five. By 1851, he had reduced his staff to a cook and a housemaid, for a family of three. His wife died in 1857, and he, in 1859.

A plan of 1859 shows a walled garden and today, the existing, mostly flint, garden wall probably predates this. There are four interesting stone plaques on the buildings. On the south-west gable of the barn STB 1754, on the east gable end of the stable range STB 1770, on the gate next to the stables facing west JAB 1859, and on the east-facing wall of the north west range ER 1904.

JAB stands for John Alfred Back who bought the Old Hall estate in 1859 after the death of T.S.Norgate. J.A.Back was part of the influential Back family who established themselves after Enclosure. In the 1891 census, J. Alfred Back (70) was living at the Hall with his wife Julia and one daughter, a cook and a housemaid. By 1900, he had died and Mrs Back was the occupier and owner. ER stands for Elizabeth Ransome who purchased the Hall about 1903 and who lived there until the 1930s.

The identity of STB has not yet come to light but he was obviously prominent in the area in the third quarter of the eighteenth century as yet another STB plaque exists on the north wall of Oakside Cottage which is on the opposite side of the B1172.

In sale particulars of 1859, the description of the Hall with its 49 acres is that of:

"A Mansion with a good Entrance Hall, Drawing Room. Dining Room, Library, Servant's Hall, Kitchen, Store Room, Pantry, Two cellars, Seven Bedrooms, Three Dressing Rooms, Water Closet, Two Attics, numerous closets. Outbuildings comprised a dairy, stable, carriage house, gig house, barn with oak and stone floor and a bailiff's house. There is a pump of excellent water".

All were bought by Mr. Back for the princely sum of 4670. J. A. Back is listed in the electoral roll of 1868-70 as being at the Old Hall as the freeholder.

In the 1908 electoral roll, Elizabeth Ransome is shown as being "By the turnpike", and was a registered voter for county and parochial elections but not of course, for parliamentary elections, as the first female franchise was still a decade away in 1918. Mrs R. C. Ransome was the occupant from 1912 until 1933, according to the various Kelly's Directories and the hall is described as having a fine avenue of chestnut trees. The extent of the estate was then 80 acres.

In 1914, Hethersett Old Hall was surveyed by a valuer of the Inland Revenue for the purpose of the 1910 Valuation Survey and was described as a:

Mansion, grounds, buildings and two cottages with 23 acres of land, the freehold belonging to Mrs Elizabeth Ransome who had bought it in September 1903 for the sum of 4000. Brick and tile residence with entrance hall, morning room, dining (with bay), drawing, (with bay), boudoir, servants' hall, pantry, lamp room, larder, storeroom. Kitchen and scullery, telephone room, small conservatory opening in to dining room, small garden room, cellar and storeroom. 2 staircases to each floor. house lighted by acetylene gas. Water by engine in cellar. 1st floor 6 beds. Day and night nursery. 2 dressing, housemaid's pantry. 2 bathrooms (h&c). 2nd floor. Cook's room, maid's room for four, linen room, box room(over). Stabling brick&tile coachhouse, garage (with pit), paved floor in front. Gardener's potting house, harness room, 3 boxes (good but low), loft over all. B&T oil house and petrol store adjt. Cladded dble. coachhouse. B&T potting shed, boiler house and 3 piggeries. B&T cartshed (poor). B&T fowlehouse. old farmbuildings. B&T stable (2), cowhouse, barn, B&T piggery. B&T dairy (new). Gardener's Cottage. B&T 3 beds, 3 down and small dairy. B&T gas house. B&T knife house Coalhouse. Gardens.

The whole was valued at 5795.

It is fortunate to have such a detailed picture of Hethersett Old Hall just before the First World War, and it shows that Elizabeth Ransome was a very progressive owner. She had lighting by acetylene, a telephone, surely one of the first in Hethersett, a garage, a boiler house to supply the hot water to the bathrooms, a number of outbuildings, and well kept grounds. At least two of Hethersett's older residents recall Mrs Ransome's car with its horn and gleaming brass lamps driven by George Bedingfield who occupied the coachman's cottage. This was probably in the early 1930's.

Mrs Andrews bought Old Hall in 1935 when she moved her PNEU school (Parents' National Educational Union), from Hellesdon House with 35 girls to Hethersett. In 1937, plans drawn by Boardman Architects show many alterations to improve and extend the accommodation for classrooms and boarders' bedrooms. The plan shows a butler's pantry just to the west of a new dining room, and a small servants' hall is shown. Mrs Andrews' first floor bedroom with a dressing room off, was above the present headmistress's office. In 1937, Old Hall was unoccupied, presumably during the alterations.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Mrs Andrews moved the school to Devon whilst the Hall was taken over by the Army. In 1950, Miss C. Lewin bought the school and estate and put in hand a programme of improvements. The stables were modernised, central heating installed and classrooms, cloakrooms and music rooms were soon in use. The entire top floor, which had been a hay loft, was turned into a studio. The eighteenth-century barn was restored and converted into an assembly hall. Recently, a swimming pool, a sport's hall and a new range of classrooms have been built.

A new staff residence was built in 1993, and in 1998, the school celebrated its jubilee with the occupation of an impressive block of new classrooms for the teaching of art, photography, technology, textiles, English, geography and history.